Settlement in the American South did not follow the same patterns as in New England nor in the major cities of the North, and this was in good part because from the earliest of colonial origins, the countryside was as crucial as the city in the South.
For example, wealthy planters in South Carolina had their plantations in rural, even remote, areas far from the major city of Charleston, and it was the bounty of those plantations upon which the wealth of Charleston was built. While the port city (for a time the wealthiest city in the colonies) profited immensely on trade, the plantations provided the goods for export. Therefore, many planters had more money and influence than even their most well-to-do urban peers.
For the planter, most daily aspects of life were met on the grounds of his plantation. His children were educated there unless they attended a boarding school in England or elsewhere, and he probably had a private chapel for worship. Provisions not produced on the plantation itself—salt, coffee, cloth, etc.—were brought in from Charleston as necessary, but there was always ample storage for large amounts of these goods. A larder kept dairy products cool, and commodious pantries retained a store of dry goods for months on end.
The sense of rural towns inspired by English examples as seen in New England, therefore, did not come about in the same way in the South, or at least not immediately. Even those who lived off the plantation—small-time farmers, for example—relied on the plantation economy for many things. However, as time passed by, material aspects of community came to be established.
The church was first. Most people in the South were devoutly religious and desired a house of worship. Thus every cluster of homes or convenient crossroads had a church—or perhaps more than one, with several denominations represented. This became the center of community in both social and literal terms, but a bonafide town might not have sprung up.
The only “town” to speak of in many rural Southern counties indeed was the county seat, the locus of court where people came to do business, whether government business, shopping, or other commercial enterprise. Sometimes due to localized industry, a river port, or other reasons, a second town of decent-size might develop in the county as well. In Levy County, Florida, the county seat is Bronson, yet the town of Chiefland today offers more shopping, having grown as the county’s agricultural center. Cedar Key is also in this county and has its own unique and varied history as a community, to be sure.
Yet most rural communities did not grow into full-fledged towns—they often lacked the well-defined streets and community spaces, such as parks, that we associate with an American town. However, they served a key function of community identity and pragmatic meeting of everyday needs.
In practical terms, think of it this way: you have the community, the town, and city. In Monroe County, West Virginia, there is the community of Pickaway. The small farming village was (and still is) composed of a cluster of homes and farms, there is a Methodist church well over one hundred years old, and for decades there was a general store which sold sundry goods the local people required. There was also a one-room schoolhouse nearby until schooling was consolidated to public schools in Union, the county seat.
Union can be thought of as the “town”: the seat of court, the place you could do your banking or see the insurance agent, the location of the local funeral parlor. Trips “to town” were perhaps not every day, but once or more a week. For more esoteric needs, such as medical care requiring a hospital or seasonal shopping for Christmas or back-to-school, people would journey to the nearest city of note. For folks in Pickaway, that would be either Ronceverte, in the next county over, or perhaps Covington or Roanoke in neighboring Virginia. For the rural citizen, all three levels of locality had their advantages and addressed specific needs.
As noted in my article on the Southern courthouse square, Southerners desired extremely localized control over schooling. In most cases, they did not wish to send children in to the county seat to attend school but instead desired to have the small schoolhouse in their own community. The teacher, most of the time, was one of their own, and when a “stranger” teacher from somewhere else—even if in the same county—was sent by the school board, she often met with initial resistance.
Though all of Monroe County could be described as remote and rustic, the small community of Glace is set far back in the mountains, removed from other communities. In 2017, it is still difficult to reach, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for the roads going there. Glace had a small school, however, from 1923 onward, and one of the teachers sent there was a new school mistress who had just graduated from college. At first, the local folks were suspicious of her, in part because previous teachers had not been college-educated but most of all because, though from Monroe County, she was not from Glace. In time, they warmed to her, but it’s a good example of the belief in keeping schools entirely localized.
Schools were normally one- or two-room affairs. A monument to the Glace School today indicates it was a humble structure, and a surviving one-room schoolhouse in Pickaway, currently being restored, is a simple yet sturdy building that once had a porch and was painted white—apparently the favored color for farmhouses, churches, and schools alike in the region. The teacher had to do more than just teach her lessons. Often aided by the older boys of the school, she had to chop and carry firewood for the wood stove, ensure the building was kept clean and tidy, and make sure water was pumped from the well and carried up if needed. She was not simply an educator but had the duties of a church’s verger and sexton, as well, in the upkeep of the property.
As the population of students grew, and along with it the depth and scope of subjects taught, sending children to a larger, central school became the only real option. The proliferation of the automobile and busing of students also made this viable: in some places like Pickaway in the early twentieth century, few people had cars, and taking a child more than a few miles for schooling was next to impossible, with most children walking to school on their own.
In Evinston, Florida, the old general store (which also served as the local post office—another key local institution in small communities) today acts as both a place of business and living museum of how goods would be presented in such a store. Families relied on gardens and their own livestock far more for food in previous decades in rural areas, but what they could not grow they bought at the store, or in plenty of cases bartered their produce or eggs for goods with the shopkeeper.
In MacClenny, Florida, the Heritage Park Village also has a museum of a country general store, displaying a typical inventory plus the cash registers and adding machines of yesteryear. Stores also served as secular centers of the community: in Pickway, for instance, in the early twentieth century when the opportunity arose for electrical power to come to the community, the men of the area met in the Pickaway Store to discuss this proposed service.
The real growth spurt for many Southern towns and cities came in the early twentieth century, with impressive commercial architecture built between the 1890’s and the 1930’s. In a town such as Union, new commercial buildings not only contained shops but also apartments or offices. In contrast, the country general store may have had an attached house for the storekeeper (as did the one in Pickaway), but these were most often timber-frame buildings, and their style spoke to the houses and farms around them, with their doors, trim, broad porches—and signage, of course—all identifying them as stores.
In town, brick was the favored building material, and the two- or three-story commercial buildings of small towns echoed in materials, signage, and stylistic typology the grander commercial buildings and towering skyscrapers of large cities. A good example is the early twentieth-century downtown architecture of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though at the time one of the South’s most-prosperous of cities, it has a kinship with the brick and stone architecture of much smaller commercial structures in places like Union. They convey an American can-do spirit and integrity. They make you feel good and secure about doing business with their owners.
The community thus was foremost, before the county seat or other town (unless it was also one’s own community) or the larger regional cities. More than just barnyards and front yards, it was where you could do your essential shopping, send the kids to school, and worship come Sunday. Its churches provided an aura of dignity, their spires reaching high and their architecture, while far less grand than its city cousins, still the most impressive in the immediate area. Along with the church, the school and store fostered not only essential functions of society but also helped to divide up the pattern of farmland and indicate a sense of center.
SEE MORE “CHURCH, SCHOOL, AND GENERAL STORE” PHOTOS HERE: